It’s the most wonderful time of the year. And no, I do not mean that glitzy, glittery, holly-and-spangle-bedecked time of the year. I mean the one that rolls around every October and lurks in the sheen of December. I mean Halloween.
As awesome as Christmas is, I am more of the “Halloween” persuasion. Blame it on an insatiable sweet-tooth and a fascination with things that go bump in the night.
And then there are the costumes. Oh, the costumes!
My penchant for costumes dates back to childhood years gone by. A large crate of baubles, bangles and beads was among my most treasured possessions. Throw into that trove a few hats, a feather boa or two, a pair of plastic high heels, a superheroes mask, a pirate’s patch, and a sheriff’s badge and I could go from pop-star, to diva, to princess, to crime fighter, to swashbuckling buccaneer; all in one glorious afternoon.
This love for dressing-up and role playing has not changed much, well into my adult years – I am an active children’s party character host, and dabble in cosplay, as well (Maleficent, the movie version, being my new, “most favorite” costume of choice.)
It is this romance with the world of flight, fancy, and fantasy that makes me love Halloween all the more. Candy, creepy crawlies, AND costumes. What’s not to love, really?
The tradition of donning costumes dates back over 2,000 years ago, to the darker days of Halloween.
Halloween is largely believed to be rooted in Celtic harvest festivals, and even pagan festivals of the dead. The Gaelic festival of Samhain – celebrated on November 1 and also known as Calan Gaeaf – signified that the season of harvest was coming to an end, giving way to the “darker half” of the year as winter set in. It also heralded a restlessness among the spirits from the Otherworld, or so the Gaels believed.
The Eve of Samhain (October 31, what we know as Halloween) was the time when fairies – not the nice, Tinkerbell-ish kind; but the impish, often evil kind – were thought to be most active, and could move in and out of the human world with greater ease. The souls of the dead, both evil and benign, were also said to re-visit their homes; to tell tales of their forbearers, bestow blessings upon family, or – if you so unfortunately happened to be related to a vengeful spirit – cause distress among the living.
Various traditions started, as a way of appeasing the spirits: Feasts were thrown (with a place at the table for the departed), bonfires were lit throughout the village, carved turnips were set out on the front steps to ward off spirits, and people walked around with their clothes turned inside-out in order to confuse evil spirits. Thus, the early beginnings of the costume tradition.
In time, Christian rulers – in an effort to spread their doctrine – co-opted pagan holidays, thereby transforming Samhain. In the seventh century, under the rule of Pope Boniface IV,
November 1 was decreed All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day.
But the “pagans” would not be subdued quite so easily. The observance of Samhain Eve continued – with bonfires, costumes, and parades – under a new name: All Hallows’ Eve, which later on morphed into “Halloween.”
Mumming’s the word
From at least the 16th century, People wore guises; costumes or masks to confuse evil fairies and spirits. Guising or mumming as it was called was a popular ritual at winter festivals, but was especially observed on Samhain Eve; the night of greatest spirit activity.
The costumes were employed to disguise oneself, or to mimic the Otherworldly beings; so that these spirits would go about their own way and leave the humans be.
Food was often left out on doorsteps; an offering to fairies to earn their favour. Villagers would go from house to house, all guised up, to collect food for the Samhain feast. Verses were recited, songs were sung in exchange for goodies. Some Gaels – mumming mischievous spirits – would play pranks on the households that did not have goodies; or, perhaps, did not have goodies to the liking of the mummers. Recognize this as “trick-or treating” yet?
Aside from clothing worn inside-out, some favorite costumes of the time included animal skins. Villagers also blackened their faces with soot from the sacred bonfires, or painted them, or hid them underneath masks. In 19th century Wales, people frequently guised themselves as gwrachod; a kind of witch feared in Welsh culture. In Ireland, it was common on Samhain Eve for men folk to dress as Láir Bhán, a white mare that would lead the procession of villagers from door to door to collect the offerings needed to satisfy Muck Olla, an unhappy deity, so as to keep the peace for the coming year. Still, in some other parts of Europe, villagers would cross-dress; donning garments of the opposite gender.
In North America, the practice of mumming was first recorded in 1911, as reported by a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario. Halloween was celebrated as a sensual feast, with costume parades and unbridled revelry. This all took a turn, however, with the onset of the Victorian era, a period marked by outward morality and repression. Festivities were toned down, and taken private rather than public. Costumes were still homemade, and revolved around the darker nature of the occasion: witches, ghouls, ghosts, goblins were among the well-loved guises.
In North America, during the 1930’s, however, costumes went from being homemade to being mass produced, thanks (or is it not thanks?) to firms like A.S. Fishbach, and Ben Cooper, Inc. These companies manufactured costumes and sold them in commercial establishments, as Halloween trick-or-treating fever spread. Costumes were made mainly for children, teens and young adults, and still focused primarily on supernatural entities such as werewolves, vampires, witches, mummies, zombies, devils, and ghosts. Later on, this repertoire grew to include science fiction characters, such as aliens; and pop-culture icons, like movie stars, singers, presidents, and athletes. Fairy tale costumes also became a top pick for young girls. For the young adults and adults, Halloween costumes evolved yet again into something more sensual, with many favoring outfits bordering on racy and showing more skin. And these days, not only the humans get dressed up; their pets do, too.
In 2013, as reported by Businessweek, the National Retail Federation statistics showed that Americans would likely spend a whopping $6.9-billion dollars on Halloween. A chunk of that – $2.6 billion altogether – would go towards adult costumes, while $330-million was the estimated price tag on splurging for pet costumes. The cost of candy weighed in at $2-billion, while greeting cards were tagged at $360-million. That’s a lot of greenbacks; especially during a time largely considered as one of economic recession!
And the best costume goes to…
Costume choices are very telling of a society and culture, revealing time-honored tradition, pop cultural sensations, historical events, and even collective fears.
In a list published in 2013, The Business Insider records the most iconic costumes of the last 20 years (based on infographics, Google searches, and Twitter mentions) as follows:
1. The purple dinosaur sensation from our imagination, Barney, was a smash in 1993, after the show first aired on television.
2. 1994 was the year of the “Mighty Morphin Rangers.” The Power Rangers have since morphed many times over, but the Mighty Morphin variant remains the most popular.
3. The debut of “Star Trek: Voyager” in 1995 caused a revival in Trekkie costumes that year.
4. 1996 saw “Scream” fill theatres with blood-curdling, errrr, screams; and everyone wanted to be psycho-killer, Ghostface.
5. Crime-fighting duo, Batman and Robin made a costume comeback in 1997, with the premiere of the flick directed by Joel Schumacher.
6. South Park took costumers by storm in 1998, with everyone wanting to dress as Cartman and friends.
7. Blue pills and red pills had everyone wanting a Matrix-inspired costume in 1999.
8. Austin Powers, baby. That’s what costumes in the year 2000 were mostly about, with the opening of “The Spy Who Shagged Me.”
9. “Wingardium Leviosa!” had fans of the Harry Potter series levitating to the nearest shop for a costume. The boy wizard was the most popular in 2001 (with the release of “The Sorcerer’s Stone”), with this popularity continuing well into the mid-2000’s.
10. Friendly neighborhood Spiderman was hot off the racks in 2002, with the debut of the first Spidey movie.
11. “The Curse of the Black Pearl” in 2003 had men sashaying as Captain Jack Sparrow, and women donning wench costumes.
12. The “Sponge Bob Movie” came out in 2004, and this absorbent, porous, and yellow cartoon character dominated the costume scene.
13. Star Wars was huge in galaxies near and far, far away in 2005 with the premiere of ‘Revenge of the Sith.”
14. Guy Fawkes hit the streets in 2006, with masked trick-or-treaters emulating the character from “V for Vendetta.”
15. Young girls and tweens all wanted to be Hannah Montana in 2007.
16. Christopher Nolan’s version of “Batman” in 2008 made Joker garb a hit that year.
17. “Twilight” and “True Blood” resurrected the Vampire craze in 2009.
18. Lady Gaga inspired costumes towered over others in 2010.
19. 2011 had Snooki-wannabes decked in Jersey Shore glitz; fake tan, and all.
20. Psy had folks doing – and dressing – the Gangnam Style in 2012, while Miley Cyrus got people working those twerk-suits in 2013.
Proving most popular for 2014 are costumes from the Disney blockbuster Frozen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles outfits, Game of Thrones inspired costumes, Walking Dead outfits, Duck Dynasty hillbilly finest, Maleficent garb, and the classic superheroes and monsters choices.
Whatever you fancy yourself this year, go ahead and fancy your heart out. It IS Halloween, after all; and whether to ward off evil spirits, or to simply have one Sanhaim of a bagful-of-candy good time, there is no better excuse to give your alter-ego (or your nemesis, perhaps?) free reign.